Oh dear. It certainly wasn’t the homecoming that Phil Neville had envisaged. After scaling the jubilant heights of overcoming three of FIFA’s top-10 ranked sides to lift the SheBelieves Cup, the former Man United defender must have been questioning whether it had really happened at all.
The 7,000- strong capacity crowd packed into the pristinely modern Man City Academy Stadium, just a stone’s throw from the Etihad, created a raucous atmosphere to the beat of drums and woodwind. They had come to see the Lionesses romp to a comfortable victory over Canada.
Sadly, they were overawed by the occasion and slumped to a 1-0 defeat courtesy of a scrappy late goal from the visitors. The good news is that after that dismal disappointment, they’ve got the chance to bounce straight back against Spain tonight.
La Roja remain a relatively unknown quantity having only ever qualified for their first World Cup finals in 2015 when they finished rock bottom of a tough group. Since then though, they’ve hit a purple patch, beating European champions Holland in the Algarve Cup before beating Brazil in a friendly on Friday.
Luckily, Big Phil has a secret weapon in striker Toni Duggan. Since the Liverpudlian moved from Man City to Barcelona Femeni, she’s notched a total of 10 goals including against Atletico Madrid in front of 60,000 people - a world record crowd for a women’s domestic match.
Blessed with the inside track she’ll have no doubt briefed her compatriots on what they can expect tonight from each one of their opponents, which includes right-back and qualified rocket scientist, Celia Jimenez Delgado.
Despite their bumpy start to life on the global stage, they produced a far improved showing in the 2017 European Championships, at least reaching the knockout stage. However, they fell at the next hurdle to Austria, a country with a population less than 20% the size of theirs.
The Euros in Holland was also the last time England had the opportunity to test their mettle against these chorizo chomping upstarts. Fran Kirby gave the Lionesses an early lead but they struggled to break them down after that. Thankfully, the defence led expertly by Steph Houghton kept the ship steady. Jodie Taylor eventually relieved her side scoring late on to ensure they ran out 2-0 winners.
But Neville’s charge will have to cope without their esteemed captain tonight. Houghton has returned to Man City to seek treatment for a groin injury picked up on Friday.
Luckily, her partner in crime Millie Bright has made a timely return to fitness after an injury which kept her out of the SheBelieves Cup. It will be a big test for how well she and the Chelsea medical team have worked to fix the problem.
With the inevitable pre-world-cup-squad-selection jitters so palpable in their last game against Canada, Neville has urged the team to play without fear and consider it a World Cup knockout game. A billing like that will strike fear into the most hardened of international veterans. No doubt it, putting in a shift tonight will do wonders for an individual’s chances of securing a place on that plane to France.